Friday, June 27, 2008

Clarke County Nonpartisan Qualifiers

Directly from the fine folks at the Board of Elections, the final list of candidates who qualified for this coming November's nonpartisan elections appears below.

Four seats on the Clarke County Board of Education are up for election this year. Given the chaos that has characterized the Board recently, it is no surprise that only one incumbent is unopposed. The two other incumbents are opposed and there are two candidates for the one open seat.

Five seats on the Athens-Clarke County Commission are up for election this year; three incumbents are unopposed, one incumbent is opposed, and there are two candidates for the one open seat.

The qualified candidates are:

Board of Education District 2
J.T. Jones
Vernon Payne (incumbent)

Board of Education District 4
Allison Wright (incumbent)

Board of Education District 6
James Francis Geiser
Charles Worthy (incumbent)

Board of Education District 8
Chinami Goodie
David Knox Huff

Commission District 2
Harry Sims (incumbent)

Commission District 4
Alice Kinman (incumbent)

Commission District 6
Edward Robinson
Valdis “Red” Petrovs

Commission District 8
Andy Herod (incumbent)

Commission District 10
Elton Dodson (incumbent)
Mike Hamby

I am not familiar with the challengers for the Board, though most any change there probably would be an improvement.

Insofar as the Commission is concerned, the interesting race is in District 6; Petrovs is a player in the PPA/OneAthens anti-poverty initiative, about which I remain dubious, but is making some good noises about trimming the budget. On the other hand, I suspect that Dodson and Hamby simply will try to outflank one another to the “progressive” left in District 10.

Regarding other offices, Ethelyn Simpson (incumbent) is the lone qualifier for State Court Judge (remember that this is a recently created position; Simpson was named to it by the Governor and must run for election this cycle) and Kenneth B. Brown has qualified to run for Sheriff as an independent (he has paid the qualifing fee, but still must file a nominating petition no later than 08 July).

Correction: In my previous comments, since revised, I was talking about Ed Vaughn, former candidate for Districts 7 and 9. I do not know anything about Edwin Robinson.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Concerning The Militia

As my contribution to the inevitable discussions of the Supreme Court’s (uncomfortably narrow) decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I present some information regarding the concept of “militia” here in the Peach State.

Article III, Section VI, Paragraph II of the state Constitution specifies that the General Assembly “shall have the power to provide by law for:”

(2) A militia and for the trial by courts-martial and nonjudicial punishment of its members, the discipline of whom, when not in federal exercise, shall be in accordance with law and the directives of the Governor acting as commander in chief.

The composition of the militia is far more expansive than most folks realize. For specifics, see O.C.G.A. 38-2-3:

Division and composition of militia; membership of unorganized militia

(a) The militia of the state shall be divided into the organized militia, the state reserve list, the state retired list, and the unorganized militia.

(b) The organized militia shall be composed of:
(1) An Army National Guard and an Air National Guard which forces, together with an inactive National Guard, when such is authorized by the laws of the United States and regulations issued pursuant thereto, shall comprise the Georgia National Guard;
(2) The Georgia Naval Militia whenever such a state force shall be duly organized; and
(3) The State Defense Force whenever such a state force shall be duly organized.

(c) The state reserve list and the state retired list shall include the persons who are lawfully carried thereon and such persons as may be transferred thereto or placed thereon by the Governor in accordance with this chapter.

(d) Subject to such exemptions to military duty as are created by the laws of the United States, the unorganized militia shall consist of all able-bodied male residents of the state between the ages of 17 and 45 who are not serving in any force of the organized militia or who are not on the state reserve list or the state retired list and who are, or who have declared their intention to become, citizens of the United States.

Thus, most military aged males in the state are in the unorganized militia, whether they realize it or not. To the best of my knowledge, the Georgia Naval Militia has never been organized. The State Defense Force, successor organization to a series of volunteer forces dating back to colonial times, was “re-authorized” in 1973 and is headquartered on Confederate Avenue in Atlanta.

Further, the unorganized militia is subject to O.C.G.A. 38-2-70:

Organizations from unorganized militia: applicable regulations; enlistment and volunteers:

To the extend permitted by the Constitution and laws of the United States, the Governor may:

(1) Order into active state service, recognize existing, or authorize the establishment of organizations of the unorganized militia, of designated classes thereof, or of volunteers therefore, as he may deem to be for the public interest;

(2) Prescribe for those organizations enumerated in paragraph (1) of this Code section such parts of the regulations governing the organized militia as may be applicable thereto or establish such regulations therefor, or both, as he may deem proper; and

(3) Provide for the separate organization of the unorganized militia and authorize the enlistment in such organizations of persons volunteering for such service who are not otherwise subject to military duty under Code Section 38-2-3.

State-level military affairs are administered by the Georgia Department of Defense (and how many readers realized that such a thing even existed?).

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Damned If They Didn’t Do It Again

At its voting session earlier this month, the Athens-Clarke County Commission passed yet another development moratorium (unanimously, of course). I must confess that I let this one slip by me, only realizing what had happened by reading about it in the current edition of Flagpole (seventh paragraph down).

Consistent with its hasty imposition of a staggering array of other development moratoria in recent years, this item was added to the Commission’s agenda with no public notice, in this case on the day of the voting session itself. I regard this practice, routine though it has come to be, as an affront to good government.

Reads the agenda item in its entirety (see item 37 under New Business on page 2):

Resolution establishing a temporary moratorium on the acceptance of applications for all demolition permits for buildings located within a proposed Reese Street historic district.

Of course, the idea of a moratorium was bandied about at the time the Kappa Alpha fraternity, having the temerity to do precisely what the existing zoning ordinances permitted, tore down those two old houses on Reese Street. Even so, the sudden imposition of the moratorium came as a surprise

The Banner-Herald’s coverage of the moratorium vote, which I completely missed the morning after the fact, consisted of a mere two sentences tacked on to the end of Blake's article concerning the Commission’s June voting session:

A moratorium on issuing demolition permits in the Reese Street neighborhood, added to the agenda at the last minute, passed unanimously. The moratorium is needed because a proposed historic district in the neighborhood is coming up for a vote, and someone could try to circumvent the new district by tearing down a building before it is approved, Commissioner David Lynn said.

We can’t have people “circumventing” the will of our betters on the Commission by obeying the law and exercising their property rights, now can we?

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

On The Clarke County Board of Education

With the Clarke County Board of Education continuing its impersonation of a slow-motion train wreck, a few observations come to mind as many commentators in the local media and blogosphere note the need for some new blood on the Board.

The Clayton County School District, which significantly outperforms its Clarke County counterpart in terms of graduation rates and AYP scores (and at far less expense, mind you), got into accreditation trouble not because of the academic performance of its students, but due to a variety of administrative problems. It seems that we now have the worst of both worlds here in the Classic City, low student achievement coupled with administrative chaos.

It is sad that a debacle of this magnitude was required to get folks exercised about what has happened to the school system. As I noted over at Jmac’s earlier in the week (scroll down to the 5th comment):

With the exception of the mayor's office, during the last election cycle the only contested spots on either the Commission of the Board of Education were the open seats (District 1 and 9 on the Commission and District 5 on the BOE). So, implied (as opposed to actual) satisfaction with incumbents is the norm.

Be that as it may, those who may be contemplating a run for office need to remember that Board districts do not correspond to Commission districts. A comparison can probably best be seen at the precinct level.

Lastly, the Board of Elections has sample ballots for the Democrat and Republican primaries to be held on 15 July. Just why the Dems continue to elect their County Committee this way eludes me; is such a practice still common in other counties?

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chaos Reigns On Mitchell Bridge Road

Interim Clarke County School District Superintendent James Simms, following the lead of Lewis Holloway, is the second superintendent to resign (at least tentatively) since last August. Read Simms’ rather blunt letter of resignation here. The concerns cited by Simms include disagreements with the Board over not approving his personnel recommendations the Board's attempted micromanagement of the District’s day-to-day affairs

Simms' threat prompted a couple of Board of Education members, District 1’s Denise Mewborn and District 4’s Allison Wright, to similarly threaten resignations; the former may or may not resign if Simms follows through and the latter apparently has reconsidered. For what it is worth, Wright is quoted in the
Banner-Herald as characterizing the Board as “dysfunctional” (Clayton County, here we come - or perhaps Peyton Place would be more apropos).

So, on top of the District’s lengthy record of startlingly high expenditures and chronic academic under-achievement, it also has to contend with friction between its administration and the Board, not to mention an ongoing series of personnel disputes (about which I know nothing other than what I have heard and read in the local media).

As an aside, the Board is coming in for lots of criticism for stepping outside its policy-making bounds and trying to micromanage the District’s daily operations; this is an interesting complaint, accurate though it may well be, in a county where many citizens routinely encourage the Commission to do precisely the same thing with regard to the Unified Government.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

10th District Campaign Update

Here is information on a couple of events leading up to the Republican primary on 15 June:

The first is an Athens Press Club forum involving incumbent 10th District Congressman Paul Broun Jr. and challenger State Representative Barry Fleming. Also on the program will be incumbent 46th District State Senator Bill Cowsert and challenger Tommy Malcolm, currently of the Oconee County Board of Education (if his campaign has a web site, I could not find it). The forum is slated for 7:00 p.m. on Monday, 30 June at the Melting Point, located at Foundry Park Inn & Spa, in downtown Athens. The forum will be broadcast live on 1340 WGAU. The Athens Press Club consists of representatives from the Athens Banner-Herald, Flagpole and WGAU. Note that you can submit questions through the WGAU web site.

The second is an AARP Georgia debate scheduled for Tuesday, 01 July in Cornelia featuring Broun, Fleming, and Democrat Bobby Saxon. The debate will take place at 6:00 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of the Cornelia United Methodist Church, located at 275 Wyly Street . April Reed will moderate; panelists include Michael Harvey of WCON radio and Kenneth Melichar, a sociology professor from Piedmont College.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

And Then There Were Two (okay . . . three)

The 2008 presidential race is down to Democrat Barack Obama, Republican John McCain, and Libertarian Bob Barr (which, of course, really means Obama and McCain - though I would like to see Barr in some debates).

Be that as it may, here are the latest bye-kues from James Taranto's Best of the Web Today.

Ron Paul:

He kept his promise

And announced he had pulled out
Though not of Iraq

Hillary Clinton:

She was sure to win

Then sure to lose: either way

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Running The Numbers On The Consortium

The impending decision of the Clarke County Board of Education to rejoin the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia (CASFG) prompted me to run some numbers, the result of which has only served to reinforce my opinion that the District should not rejoin the group.

The CASFG web site lists 47 member school systems (2 city and and 45 county school systems). When one looks up the respective millage rates charged by each system in 2007, an unmistakable pattern immediately emerges. My calculations yielded an average millage rate of 14.482 mills. So, the strategy for the vast majority of CASFG members is to undercharge their own citizens on property taxes and then sue to have the state’s taxpayers make up the supposed “inadequacy,” even though those taxpayers may be paying a substantially higher millage rate to support their own education systems.

The Towns County school system has the lowest millage rate (at 3.633 mills it is the lowest by a wide margin – and yes, I called the Towns County Tax Commissioner’s office to make sure that wasn’t a typo) and the Wayne County school system has the highest millage rate (20.000 mills, which made it the only system to have a rate of more than 17.90 mills). Even so, the former’s per pupil expenditure for FY 2007 was $8454.16, while that of the latter was $7699.65. Compare either with the state average of $8428.05 per pupil and the $10,746.94 per pupil spent by the Clarke County School District for the same period

So what does all of this mean? It means that the CSSD is poised to spend even more tax dollars on supporting a group that whines incessantly about the extent to which the state funds education, even while its members conspicuously do not avail themselves of the fullest opportunity to pay for their students’ education.

Of course, here in Clarke County we are already paying top dollar for dismal results – and the only proposed solution we ever get is to spend even more.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Second Verse, Same As The First

Much to my dismay, the Clarke County Board of Education is slated to vote on rejoining the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia at its regular session on Thursday evening (see agenda item 17 under New Business - page 64 of the PDF).

This is an ongoing concern for me, as can be seen by my earlier comments here, here, and here. The District joined the organization a couple of years ago, but dropped out last year when the cost to participate went up to $8 per student.

According to the memorandum from the superintendent, the Consortium now offers three levels of membership:

1. As a “Regular Member” with the right to elect Consortium board and officers and approve any settlement. The cost to be a “regular member” is $8 per FTE per year.

2. As an “Associate Member” without the rights indicated above but as a strong supporter at a cost of $1 per FTE per year.

3. As a “Supporter” at whatever level of financial support the Board would care to provide.

The superintendent’s recommendation is to take the Goldilocks approach and opt for membership at the “associate” level.

Given that the District’s per pupil spending was over $10,700 for FY 2007, that such spending places the District in the 95th percentile statewide, that the District’s portion of the local property tax millage rate is already at the 20 mills limit imposed by the state Constitution, that the state's QBE contribution to the District has increased by more than 23% since FY 2004, and that the District’s budget continues to grow by leaps and bounds, I find the prospect of flushing another eleven to twelve thousand dollars per year of my tax money down the toilet in the name of showing support unconscionable.

Such is the problem for we less government, fiscally responsible types; we have to keep fighting the same battles over and over

And yes, once again I’ve scooped the Banner-Herald with regard to what the folks over on Mitchell Bridge Road are planning to do.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Questions About Those SPLOST 3 Bonds

The voters of Athens-Clarke County approved a continuation of the SPLOST, or ELOST if you prefer, collected on behalf of the Clarke County School District (the District) in a referendum held in November 2006. The referendum included a provision that the District could issue short-term bonds to be repaid using revenue generated by the short-term sales tax. So far, so good.

Even so, two aspects of the District’s bond resolution, approved by the Athens-Clarke County Commission (the Commission) on 05 June 2007, caused me concern: the fact that the District’s portion of the local property tax millage rate was already at the 20 mills limit imposed by the Constitution of the State of Georgia and the legal basis of a potential transference of bonded indebtedness from sales tax revenue to property tax.

My first concern, since satisfied, was the question of why bonded indebtedness would not count against the 20 mills limit imposed by the Constitution on the District’s portion of the local property tax millage rate. No one I contacted at the District, the Clarke County Tax Commissioner’s office, the Department of Education, or the Department of Revenue could give me an answer as to how the 20 mills limit could be exceeded without a referendum - other than conspicuously vague references to unspecified “state law,” that is. Similarly, my own searching of the Constitution, O.C.G.A., and the administrative regulations for the appropriate state Departments yielded nothing useful. Eventually, I contacted the Attorney General’s office by telephone, which provided me with the relevant Georgia Supreme Court case law, Seaboard Air-Line Railway Company v. Wright, comptroller-general, et al., from way back in 1927, that exempted bond debt service from the constitutional limit. Fair enough.

Regarding my second concern, the District’s bond resolution cited a general provision contained in the Constitution as permitting this arrangement. The District’s resolution read, in part (see pages 4-5 of the PDF):

Whereas, The Commission of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia has been advised and acknowledges that under the laws of the State of Georgia providing for the calling of a referendum to determine the imposition, levy and collection of a one percent sales and use tax for educational purposes, any bonds authorized to be issued as a part of such referendum will constitute general obligation bonds for which the full faith and credit of the School District is pledged; and

Whereas, Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution of the State of Georgia requires that prior to the issuance of general obligation bonds, a tax must be levied in amounts sufficient to pay the principal of and the interest on the Bonds as the same become due and payable, to the extent that the revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient thereof;

Now therefore, be it resolved by The Commission of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, in a meeting duly assembled and open to the public, and it hereby is resolved by authority of same, that The Commission of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia hereby reaffirms the Original Resolution, providing for the levy and collection of the Direct Tax, in order to pay the principal of and interest on the Bonds, as the same become due and payable, to the extent that revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient to pay the same.

Be it further resolved, by The Commission of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia by authority of the same that there be and is hereby levied and collected an additional direct tax for the years 2007 through 2011 upon all property, including real property, subject to taxation for school bond purposes and located in the School District, which embraces all the territory comprising the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, in order to pay the principal of and interest on the Bonds, as the same become due and payable, to the extent that revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient to pay the same, which tax shall be an amount sufficient to raise the sums in each of the years as more fully set forth in “Exhibit A” attached hereto and made a part hereof. The sums hereby levied are irrevocably pledged and apportioned to the payment of the principal of and interest on the Bonds, as the same become due and payable.

However, the actual text of Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution plainly reads:

Levy of taxes to pay bonds; sinking fund required. Any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of this state shall at or before the time of incurring bonded indebtedness provide for the assessment and collection of an annual tax sufficient in amount to pay the principal and interest of said debt within 30 years from the incurring of such bonded indebtedness. The proceeds of this tax, together with any other moneys collected for this purpose, shall be placed in a sinking fund to be used exclusively for paying the principal and interest on such bonded debt. Such moneys shall be held and kept separate and apart from all other revenues collected and may be invested and reinvested as provided by law.

As can be clearly seen, there is no mention whatsoever of transferring bonded indebtedness from a sales tax to property tax, just a general provision that a sinking fund to repay bonds be in place before the bonds are issued. Explicitly contrary to my reading of the District’s resolution, the Constitution is mute on the subject of transferring any shortfall in sales tax collections to property tax “to the extent that revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient therefore.”

Further, I found no mention of transferring bonded indebtedness from sales tax to property tax in either the administrative regulations of the Department of Revenue’s Property Tax Division (Chapter 560-11) or Sales and Use Tax Division (Chapter 560-12), or the Revenue and Taxation section of O.C.G.A. (Title 48 Chapter 5: Ad Valorum Taxation of Property and Title 48 Chapter 8: Sales and Use Tax). Also, in response to a later written inquiry from me, the Attorney General’s office clammed up, saying that it could not provide legal advice to a private citizen (for which I did not ask, by the way).

So, I am left with a series of question to which I have no discernible answers (inquiring minds and all). What legal basis, if any, exists for transferring bonded indebtedness from the revenue generated by a limited duration sales tax to property tax? How would such a transfer be implemented? How would such a transfer square with the “sinking fund” required to repay bonds specified by the Constitution?

Admittedly, the questions are rhetorical, as I expect no one to provide me with anything remotely resembling definitive answers. But . . . I could be wrong.

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SPLOST: A Case Study

For more than a decade, school systems in Georgia have been able to collect a 1% Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, subsequent to the approval of the tax through a countywide referendum (in common terminology SPLOST, though the more correct term is ELOST, denoting a supplemental sales tax for education). This additional sales tax is specified for capital improvements only and cannot be used to fund personnel or operating expenses. Needless to say, school systems have enthusiastically embraced this method of generating revenue and many have implemented a series of such measures over the years.

The Clarke County School District is no exception. Its initial SPLOST ran from July 1997 through June 2002. The District’s subsequent SPLOST 2 began immediately thereafter, in July 2002, and continued through June 2007. The current iteration, SPLOST 3, is slated to run from July 2007 through June 2012.

Proponents of these measures have claimed that by funding capital projects through sales taxes, they could be completed without the payment of interest on long-term bonded indebtedness or necessitating increases in property taxes. Let us put those both of those assertions to the test by considering the District’s most recently completed version of the tax, SPLOST 2.

While it is true that SPLOST 2 avoided the imposition of long-term bonded indebtedness, as advertised, short-term indebtedness proved another matter altogether. In 2002, the Athens-Clarke County Commission approved $30 million in general obligation bonds on behalf of the District, followed by another $3.4 million in 2003, and an additional $4.0 million in 2005. Obviously, this series of bond issues totaled $37.4 million in only four years.

Ostensibly, the strategy employed in issuing short-term bonds is to save money by borrowing, thereby getting funds “in the bank” sooner, rather than construct capital projects as sales tax revenue accumulates,. This approach is diametrically opposed to the traditional concept of a “sinking fund,” in which money would be accumulated prior to construction so as to avoid debt. Supporters of this practice claimed that, by issuing short-term bonds scheduled to mature concurrent with the end of SPLOST 2 sales tax receipts, money would be saved by avoiding the anticipated construction cost increases that may occur over the five-year life span of the tax. Also, proponents pointed out that money generated by the bonds can earn interest in the brief period before it is spent.

It may well be the case that this process saved the taxpayers money, but such savings have not been proven empirically. According to figures obtained from the District, approximately $3.6 million was paid in interest on the various SPLOST 2 bonds as they matured, but it could provide no specifics whatsoever as to how much money the process saved through the avoidance of construction cost increases. Also, it should be remembered that the total amount needed to complete the specified projects would not have been borrowed at the outset of construction, debt would have been incurred as needed, so a linear relationship linking total costs savings to the construction timeframe cannot be assumed. Simply put, the claim that the taxpayers have saved money must be taken as an article of faith.

Conversely, SPLOST 2 proved a demonstrable failure at limiting property tax increases. According to figures from the office of the Athens-Clarke Clarke County Tax Commissioner, the District’s portion of the county’s property tax millage rate steadily progressed during the course of SPLOST 2, from 18.75 mills in 2002 to 19.25 mills in 2003, to 19.50 mills in 2004, and to the constitutional limit of 20.00 mills in 2005. Even so, according to the office of the Athens-Clarke County Tax Assessor the value of the county’s property tax digest has risen by an average of 9-10% annually in recent years, thereby generating substantial property tax revenue increases irrespective of millage rate increases.

This never-ending appetite for tax revenue, generated from whatever source, is a direct result of rising expenditures. According to the school system financial reports issued annually by the Georgia Department of Education, student enrollment increased in Clarke County over the SPLOST 2 period by 494 pupils, from 10,921 in 2002 to 11,415 in 2007, or 4.5%. Per pupil expenditures increased by $2522 over that same period, from $8225 to $10,747, or 30.7%. Thus, per pupil expenditures increased at almost seven times the rate of student enrollment over the five year duration of SPLOST 2.

Finally, consider that the various SPLOST 2 bond resolutions, of which the most recent pertaining to SPLOST 3 will serve as an example (see pages 4-5), specified that property taxes would be levied to repay the bonds if sales tax revenues were insufficient to pay the debt incurred by them. Admittedly, this situation was unlikely to occur. Nonetheless, even the remote possibility that property taxes would have been raised in order to cover any shortfalls in the sales taxes pledged to pay off bond debt service should cause the taxpayers grave concern.

The question remains as to whether the claims of SPLOST supporters correspond to reality. The experience of taxpayers with regard to the most recently completed supplemental sales tax levied on behalf of the Clarke County School District, SPLOST 2, indicates that the answer is mixed at best. The lesson to be learned is that, when it comes to implementing supplemental sales taxes, the optimistic claims of educational administrators, bureaucrats, and school board members should be regarded with a healthy skepticism.

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